Retired US soccer star Abby Wambach nails the gender pay gap’s longterm damage

For female athletes, the hustle never ends.
For female athletes, the hustle never ends.
Image: AP/Invision/Chris Pizzello
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Few professionals boast a pay gap as glaring as that in professional sports.

The minimum salary for WNBA players was $38,000 in 2016, compared to $525,000 in the all-male NBA. In golf, the women’s US Open winner earns about 45% the prize money of the men’s US Open champion.

Men’s basketball and golf draws more viewers and sponsorships in the US than the women’s does, which is often used to justify the discrepancy in pay. But there’s no getting around the unfairness of pay in soccer. The US men’s national team has never advanced past the World Cup quarterfinals; the women’s team has won three World Cups since 1992, with the 2015 women’s World Cup final the most-watched soccer game of any kind in US history. Women’s soccer in the US earns twice the revenue that men’s soccer does.

Nonetheless, in 2016, male players earned $263,320 plus bonuses if they won at least 20 exhibition matches in a season, according to a Newsweek calculation. The women got a maximum of $99,000 for doing the exact same thing. That prompted four female players to file a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A new contract has since narrowed that gap, but the complaint is not yet resolved, Bloomberg reports.

It’s galling, but it also has consequences for athletes long past their playing days, something World Cup champion and two-time gold medalist Abby Wambach highlighted in her recent commencement speech to graduates at Barnard College.

She recounted her experience receiving an ESPY Icon award in 2016 following her retirement from soccer, alongside recently retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. As the three stood on the stage, “I had a momentary feeling of having arrived—like we women had finally made it,” Wambach said. “Then the applause ended and it was time for the three of us to exit stage left. And as I watched those men walk off the stage, it dawned on me that the three of us were stepping into very different futures.”

She continued:

Each of us, Kobe, Peyton and I—we made the same sacrifices, we shed the same amount of blood sweat and tears, we’d left it all on the field for decades with the same ferocity, talent and commitment. But our retirements wouldn’t be the same at all. Because Kobe and Peyton walked away from their careers with something I didn’t have: enormous bank accounts. Because of that, they had something else I didn’t have: freedom. Their hustling days were over, and mine were just beginning.

Later that night, back in my hotel room, I laid in bed and thought: this isn’t just about me, and this isn’t just about soccer. We talk a lot about the pay gap. We talk about how, overall, U.S. women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to men. Black women in America earn 63 cents, while Latinas earn 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white men. What we need to talk about more is the aggregate and compounding effects of the pay gap on women’s lives. Over time, the pay gap means women are able to invest less and save less, so they have to work longer. When we talk about what the pay gap costs us, lets be clear: it costs us our very lives.

And it hit me that I’d spent most of my time during my career the same way I’d spent my time on that ESPYs stage. Just feeling grateful. Grateful to be one of the only women to have a seat at the table. I was so grateful to receive any respect at all for myself that I often missed opportunities to demand equality for all of us.

As a former star athlete, Wambach at least will have speaking and endorsement opportunities to support her in retirement; most working women will not. Injustice compounds.